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KIH #1: Which components ‘keep it honest’?

  • KIH. Some three-letter abbreviations are more obscure. Take KBO. Keep buggering on. Sir Winston Churchill is said to have been very fond of that one. Others are so commonplace, they’ve virtually replaced the spelled-out version. FYI, I just DIY my own funeral. LOL.

    For today I’d like to propose a new one. KIH. That’s not a mystical Shaolin power though it’s quite powerful in its own right. It’s pronounced ‘key’ and does help to unlock certain mysteries though certainly nothing very profound. KIH. I give you the keep-it-honest component.

    As our hifi journeys twist and turn and generally move upward (or so we pray), it’s easy to lose track of how far we’ve come. Or whether we’ve made any real progress rather than run a circle or traded tit for tat to drift sideways. Reviewers are particularly guilty of this. We go through a helluva lot of gear. Not only that, with time and growing reputation we tend to get access to truly expensive stuff which often is well beyond our own wallet and aspiration. Do that long enough and terra firma recedes in the mists. That now has the makings of the ivory tower syndrome.

    And it’s not just the excessive stuff. Getting used to €3.000 DACs to think of them as the hot zone of cracking sonics to coin could easily overlook that a year later certain €600 contenders have crawled up uncomfortably close to warrant a rewrite of one’s own map. This is the bane of all ‘class A’ or ‘5 star’ schemes. They’re inflexible. They don’t adjust to trickle-down and man-up sightings.

    During a recent review of just such a €600 challenger I took its measure also in a price-matched context. This meant moving in a sub €600 integrated I’d not listened to since its review. That wasn’t snobbery. It was a practical side effect of already having the Wyred4Sound all-in-one mINT on the desk top which integrates headfi, DAC and amplification. The Clone Audio 25i neither does phones nor digits. I can only listen to one desktop system. The Wyred already crosses off all the boxes in one box. Not using it in the big rig instead was the usual side effect of reviewing gear whose natural-born ancillary level far exceeds the gainclone from Hong Kong.


    Listening to it again gave rise to today’s KIH notion. The 25i is the sort of component one should keep around to keep oneself honest. As an electronics 101 circuit directly off the opamp maker’s own application notes, it’s got zero engineering cred. It’s so simple and basic that manufacturers couldn’t make any real money of it unless they were Japanese mystics riding out the limited time it takes until people wise up and roll their own. Which is exactly what happened to 47lab’s Gaincard. Its reign by now dates far enough back to where you might think been there, done that, passé. Except that the 25i is that inconvenient reminder to the contrary. Purely on sonics it remains competitive with or exceeds equivalently priced to more expensive amps with ‘proper’ engineering credentials, i.e. discrete output devices, no feedback and the ability to bench-press Maggies (which you’d not do with this or any other gainclone).

    There are other such components. I’m sure all of us in this game long enough have our own contenders. Given that unlike my own site this one allows direct reader feedback to be added right beneath an editorial or review, I thought it very interesting and useful to invite you to share your own keep-it-honest gear you either wish you hadn’t sold; heard elsewhere to be reminded; or actually kept around for exactly that purpose.

    Here’s some more from my bag. I’ve owned Anthony Gallo’s Reference 3.0 and reviewed it and its newer iterations as well as some Classic Line models and his original small spheres. I still own his latest-gen Strada now called Strada2. I run it with the matching TR-3D subwoofer as my desktop speakers. Just to keep sane I’ve occasionally taken the Strada2 mounted on its humongous Pierre Sprey/Mapleshade stands off the desktop to park it in the big rig atop 16x16x16” hardwood storage boxes to get the tykes sufficiently off the ground. Pierre Sprey actually wants ’em on the floor but aesthetically we all have our limits.

    Whilst the look of my set still gets contraptazoid on the floor—jerry-rigged and a bit futon-on-the-floor dated unless you had the matching stands which get very spindly—the sound with the sub to this day is superb. It really is competitive with 3-way towers up to €15.000/pr and on soundstaging and timing exactitude smokes many of ’em. Visually of course I’d prefer something like Albedo Audio’s Aptica which takes up the same amount of floor space and requires no sub but on raw coin the Gallo three-some isn’t outclassed. Anthony Gallo’s Strada2 thus is another personal KIH component.


    A far more recent personal acquaintance in this class is MrSpeakers’ Alpha Dog. At $600 including a simple but smart stand, this sealed planar-magnetic aka orthodynamic headphone with 3D-printed cups in automotive lacquer holds the line steady against challengers from Audeze (LCD-2) and HifiMan (HE-500 and HE-6), never mind a slew of traditional dynamic cans from the majors which sell at twice or more its rate. Having done the deed against those major planars and my Beyerdynamic T1 and T5p and Sennheiser HD800, I’m perfectly confident. Anyone raving over $2.000 flagship cans ought to have an Alpha Dog on the leash just to keep it real. It doesn’t mean you couldn’t prefer costlier cans or hear legitimate advances. But raving in context is always more useful than doing it ignorant of what’s actually possible. For a lot less.

    An oldie but goodie and true KIH classic are the various Chris Sommovigo budget S/PDIF cables up to his current Black Cat Cable Silverstar 75. And so forth. I’m sure you have your own candidates or at least suspect that certain kit you’ve long since divested yourself of could have been. Remember that the key to KIH isn’t being very unimpeachable best, period. Such absolutes don’t exist and are always silly. It’s about components that set such a high standard in general that to spend lots more on bigger and presumably better gets hard to justify if one knows. How about sharing what you know with the rest of us who know that DAR for example stands for Digital Audio Review, Direct Australian Reporting and John Darko?

    Read Darko’s follow-up piece on KIH components here.

    Further information: Mr Speakers Alpha Dog | Anthony Gallo Strada2 |  Black Cat Silverstar 75 | Clone Audio 25i

    Srajan Ebaen

    Written by Srajan Ebaen

    Srajan is the owner and publisher of 6moons. He used to play clarinet at the conservatory. Later he worked in audio retail, then marketing for three different hifi manufacturers. Writing about hifi and music came next, then launching his own mag. Today he lives with his wife Ivette and Nori and Chai the Bengal cats in a very small village on Ireland’s west coast, between the holy mountain Croagh Patrick and the Atlantic ocean of Clew Bay in County Mayo’s Westport area. Srajan derives his income from the ad revenues of 6moons but contributes to Darko.Audio pro bono.


    1. well,here i go genuine papa made first watt f5 is a fair match for my nagra 300p(that’s €1900 including carriage to italy and import tax vs. €14500 list) run through my nagra cdc or plp on tannoy canterbury ses.truth be told the trends ta10.2p se playing in the same rig is nothing to be ashamed of.
      makes you think.
      michele from rome

    2. The Schiit Modi is silly-good for the comically-low price. DAR has stated as much, as have many others, but it’s a standout worth mentioning again. Any other piece of gear I hear has to try awfully hard to state its case and justify its price.

      I’ve since moved up to the Bifrost w/USB, mostly for convenience of extra inputs.

    3. Namaste, Mr. Ebaen, and WTD – Welcome to DAR.

      I recall you quoting and criticizing my comment on Auralic’s upcoming stand-amp “lifestyle” thing over at your 6moons site. No worries. All will be forgiven as long as you bring in more Bakoon reviews.

      Also, for the love of all things criptographic, please teach us regular uncultured folk how to pronounce your first name.



    4. We don’t usually think about the topic of this article, constantly searching for the latest and greatest “holy grail” of sonic perfection, but you are absolutely right that one should stop for a minute or two and take a reality check. Obviously, we can’t have all that is considered high-end, top-of-the-line, most advanced, the latest, etc. Very often, what we already have, is satisfying enough (and costs us nothing, since we’ve paid for it already)…

    5. One vote for a keeping it honest column here on DAR. I like the point of view and the specific gear mentioned. I somehow missed the Clones Audio review on 6moons. Any opionions on the Ap1 preamp?
      My KIH list:
      Modified Sony Playstation 1 SCPH-1001 cd player
      DIYTube ST-35, and Don Allen Cakepan El84SE amps
      Musical Paradise MP-301 6V6 SE Integrated
      Bellari VP130 phono
      Reynaud Twin speakers
      NHT M00 active nearfield speakers

    6. Keeping it honest, Decware Zen Triode Select does an admirable job of powering Klipschorns in my rig, and sounds damn good to boot. 4 watts and 105dB gets as loud as I care to listen. Welcome to DAR, Srajan.

    7. Thanks for the welcome and feedback. I’d second Michele’s vote for the Nelson Pass FirstWatt F5. It’s no longer made but used pieces do crop up and of course there’s plenty of support for rolling one’s own. On something kinda equivalent on quality though with a lot more real-word power and still very much current for the turnkey users amongst us, I forgot to mention the Goldmund JOB 225. It’s now available worldwide 115/230V for $1’695.- delivered. That’s quite the bomb.
      Mortsnets, I’ve not heard the matching pre to the 25i gainclone but I’d be surprised if Funjoe screwed up on his second component and didn’t give us something equally hot.
      Gan, I admit the name looks weird but the spelling is like so: sra-djahn ee-bay-en. And my Gemini lifestyle thingie wasn’t at all personal but general. The notion of lifestyle and high-performance audio as two clashing contradictory pursuits to me seems so dated so I think AURALiC are right on the money with this effort. But obviously you pay extra for the cosmetics. Certainly nobody needs to spend a few hundred quid on a shiny headphone stand that does absolutely nothing for the sound -:)
      I’m all up for more Bakoon gear. It’s exceptionally well engineered. In this context it’s simply priced high(er) for what it is and thus wouldn’t make my KIH list…

      • Ah, I wasn’t referring to the Bakoon being on the KIH list. It was more in a general sense. Alright fine. I’ll settle for pictures of your cat instead. 🙂

    8. Hey Mr. Ebaen its funny to spot this over at DAR cuz I was just over at 6 Moons swimming through tube integrated reviews to try to narrow down contenders for my first grow’d up tube amp. Audio Space, Trafomatic and Line Magnetic are starting to come into focus… BTW Line Magnetic seems to be throwing down some serious gear outta PRC… If you have the contacts I’d be interested to read what you hear.

      That said my KIH is run of the mill integrated amps laying waste to a fleet of would be “top shelf” headphone amps. I’ve got Violectric, Woo and ALO headfi dedicated units that I’ve invested over a couple grand in over the past two years and they are all bested by the most mundane of integrated gears… A recapped and restored Sansui 517 that adds a whole dimension of life. Like walking out of the control room, and into the studio where the musicians are playing live.

      What passed as “linear” before now sounds flat and lifeless. Kudos to the vintage beast in my life.

    9. My contribution to KIH is the Lightspeed LDR preamp which is also now commercially being implemented by Tortuga. Its the most transparent preamp in my opinion.

    10. B-Dub, I kinda swore off valve amps for numerous reasons, some of which will be the topic of future KIH installments like #4. For a similar type of sound I now use Nelson Pass’ SIT-1 monos: single stage, single output device, no feedback, no degeneration, adjustable bias. It’s literally simpler than the simplest of triode amps but has true triode curves, no output transformer and similarly high-ish output impedance and low power like a classic 300B SET. But it’s also got far lower noise, higher current and rather broader bandwidth. Given my prior ownership of tube SETs and subsequent shift to transistors, I don’t think I’d be a suitable candidate for tube amps these days. What they do different (or better) to me isn’t as important as what they don’t do as well -:)

      Joseph, great pick. A really great passive remains a superb solution as long as it can drive the length of interconnects one has to use. In fact a passive (I fancy John Chapment’s Bent Audio Tap X because it’s a TVC and has full remote control in small increments) is my preferred solution over digital volume controls built into DACs. Ideally of course I’d want no preamp at all but a DAC that’s got proper analog volume, remote control over it *and* the refined sonics of my Nagra Jazz valve preamp plus supports all current hi-rez formats. Hey, a guy can dream, can’t he? Until then a passive is the ideal solution if you don’t want digital volume (or have no volume on your DAC, period) and don’t need/want the sonic contributions of an additional voltage gain stage. I didn’t review the Tortuga but Glen Wagenknecht on my staff did. He was very impressed and I thought the LightSpeed I reviewed was very good too. Again, great choice and certainly cost effective!

    11. Great job Srajan, as always.

      So cool to find you here at John’s DAR! I know he writes for you over at 6moons.
      VERY nice read. Keep rockin it.

    12. Srajan – Thanks so much for the article and the promise of more. I’m a lapsed audiophile lurking around and trying to decide how to reenter the hobby. It’s changed a lot … especially the price of reference components. “Keeping it honest” is the perfect way to express the value proposition in high quality audio and an excellent guide for folks like myself.

    13. Grado SR 60 that cost me $60 new back then. They still won’t do enough wrong to allow me to get rid of em’.

      Thanks for the fun read.

    14. Thanks for the great article.
      Keeping ones feet on the ground would be difficult with the great reviewers have at there disposal.

      I am the North American distributor for Clones Audio and it’s nice to see the word getting out on the product line.

      Feel free to email with any questions.

    15. Grado SR60. That nearly is the grand daddy of keeping it honest. Good one!

      Allthetime, there’s definitely more to come. John’s already got #2-5 in his bag for whenever he runs low on his own stuff and needs to throw something up. And just today I had the idea for #6 so it looks like this column will keep going for a bit…

      Which might be an opportune juncture to ask whether anyone has specific requests. I can’t promise I’ll respond to everything especially if I don’t have the necessary knowledge to comment meaningfully about certain things Then it’s better to remain mum rather than spread bad intel. But if I have something to offer on a subject, I’ll consider it very seriously for a future installment.

      • Srajan, I do have a suggestion … component matching is so important to having a system that sounds exceptional, my request would be that at some point you would have a KIH system or two whose parts work well together. This seems to be a really rare topic in the audiophile press – a suggested system where each piece is a KIH component and the whole thing sounds fabulous together.

        • I wrote something along these lines a couple of years ago but the article got lost in the site move from Joomla to WordPress. Essentially it was a $2k system: Epos ELS-3 + Rega Brio-R + Audio-gd NFB2.1. If I were doing the same this year, I’d roll the amp and DAC into one – NAD D 3020 – and run with either Magnepan MMG (assuming enough balls on the NAD) or the GoldenEar Aon 2. For a $1k system: NAD D 3020 + Pioneer SP-BS22-LR.

          • Thanks John! Just the sort of thing I was thinking of. As I mentioned elsewhere I’m a lapsed audiophile who has been lurking about some, trying to figure out a re-entry system. I like either of your current 2k suggestions but would love to have someone with discriminating ears (like your self) hear (maybe you have) and report on them together.

    16. >>specific requests
      o PREAMPS! tube preamps are expensive, passive didn’t work in my system, where are the KIH preamps these days. Maybe headamp/pre or dac/pre?

      o TURNTABLES with arm and cartridge (if that is kosher on DIGITAL Audio Review)
      My music hall is boring, vintage empire motor is noisy. how much do you have to pay for honest analog.

      • Pre-amps? Sure – some coverage coming up just before Christmas. Turntables *could* happen if I can source a writer in that field.

    17. >>Turntables *could* happen if I can source a writer in that field.
      Ask most excellent reviewer Michael Lavorgna to write them under an alias (how about Gavel Harmonical) he could probably use a break now and then from computer audio.

    18. Preamps. Funjoe of Clones Audio just asked me for a review of his AP1 preamp with a pair of his forthcoming 55pm monos. I said yes. Based on prior evidence — his 25i got awards from us, Stereo & Mono, HifiPig and — there could be real winners again.

      Michael Lavorgna would be an excellent choice but like John sez, he must be plenty busy. Plus he might well be under exclusive contract to Stereophile to where even if he wanted his hands could be tied.

        • The 25i will be available with remote in the New Year as well as a dac fully loaded with dsd.
          The 50p is brand new as well and am looking forward to hearing them and your impression.
          The ap1 with 25p’s is a fine combination.

    19. Great idea for a column .. thank you. The Odyssey Audio Khartago and Cyclops are amongst those KIH in my opinion.

    DAR turns 3. Where is my mind?

    Rega prep Saturn-R CD-DAC player